What it was like to visit North Korea as a tourist nearly twenty years ago

I used to work for a UK-based upmarket tour operator called Bales Worldwide. Sadly, the company no longer exists but, in its day (and when I worked for them), Bales had a reputation for pioneering offbeat destinations.  When, one sunny day in the middle of March 2001 (yes, we do get them every now and then), two Asian guys wearing dark suits and sunglasses, à la Men-in-Black style, turned up at the office unannounced, I had no inkling that a few weeks later I would be heading off to one of the most bizarre places I have ever visited.

Arriving without an appointment was in itself strange. Our office was located in a small town in Surrey county, about an hour’s train ride from central London and, apart from the milkman and the postman, we didn’t get many visitors rocking up without prior arrangement. I was head of the product department at Bales. Along with my team and a director above me, I was responsible for which itineraries, hotels and even destinations featured in our brochures. So, when shortly after the door buzzed, our Sarf London office junior came and told me there were “two geezers in black suits” at reception who wanted to talk to someone about their country, it fell upon me to find out what these two guys wanted.

I was somewhat annoyed to have my day interrupted without warning but, nonetheless, I went to greet them and see what they wanted. In my mind, I was preparing a polite way to get rid of them but when they promptly introduced themselves as Mr Bak and Mr Lee from North Korea, gave me a polite bow and then asked if I wanted to visit their country on an all-expenses-paid trip – all before even crossing the threshold – they got my attention.

It turned out that Mr Bak and Mr Lee worked for the state-owned tourism bureau, Korea International Travel Company (KITC), and they had been tasked with finding travel companies that were interested in sending tourists to their homeland. They informed me that they had heard, rightly so as it happens, that Bales Worldwide would be a good company to approach in this matter and that is why they had left London early that morning (it was now midday; apparently, they had got lost along the way!) to journey down to our small corner of the home counties.

*Note: all the photos in this post are scans of the film originals – hence the terrible quality!*

We were greeted with icons like these (both of Kim Il-sung, the first Supreme Leader/ the “Great Leader”) as soon as we arrived in North Korea 

I had no clue about North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as a tourist destination. Normal practice would be to do some additional research, feasibility studies and that sort of thing pre or post a meeting, before making any further commitment but, for the first and probably the only time in my career, I thought about what I wanted and I WANTED to go to North Korea and so I agreed there and then that, as a company, we would send an employee on a hosted feasibility trip to the DPRK.

The meeting ended with Mr Bak and Mr Lee handing over two return Swissair tickets to Beijing plus two onward tickets to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, on the state-owned airline, Koryo Air. The name fields were left blank on all the tickets and I was also given a telephone number of a contact in Ealing, West London, who would sort out the visas.

Tomb of King Kongmin Kaesong City North Korea 1One of the few photo I could find of Mr Bak and Mr Lee together – both in the dark suits but minus the sunglasses

Of course, the employee who was going on the trip would be me but I didn’t bank of them offering the opportunity for two of us to go. My director who, thankfully, endorsed my impromptu obligation to the North Korean boys (as they soon became known) couldn’t make the trip himself due to a prior commitment. This was probably for the best (two people from the same department on the same trip blah, blah, blah…) and so, instead, I asked a guy from the sales department named Paul and he was happy to oblige.

The next obstacle was the dates: 27th April – 6th May. Kirsty’s birthday is 6th May and I wouldn’t be getting home until the early evening on that date. What’s more, we had only recently moved house and there was still lots to do but, thankfully, she was cool about it and told me not to turn down such an opportunity (*).

(*) This was a good outcome for me personally and also for our domestic harmony, as I had no intention of turning the trip down!

The next step was to sort out our visas. It turned out that the semi-detached house that Paul and I were instructed to visit in West London to present our documents was actually the official North Korean Embassy. It still is, apparently, and the level of response that we received from the staff there was bloody terrible. Obtaining the visa ended up being the most stressful part of the whole experience. Even though we were invited to the DPRK by one of the state-run tourism bureaus and were technically VIPs, plus, they had about six weeks to sort things out, the embassy still didn’t manage to issue our visas on time. Paul and I ended up having our visa-less passports given back at Heathrow airport on the day of travel from a guy at the embassy along with an assurance that another person would then meet us at Beijing airport and hand over the necessary paperwork to allow us to continue to Pyongyang.

We weren’t happy with the scenario, especially as we didn’t have a visa for China either as the intention was to remain in transit, but we had no choice but to run with it or give up.

We were both stressed (well, me more than Paul) by the time we boarded the plane at Heathrow and became even more so when we questioned how we would be able to meet this new contact at Beijing airport if we couldn’t go landside.  We had no Chinese visas, remember?  To relieve the stress, we started to drink heavily!

By the time we landed, some ten hours later, we were wrecked. We hadn’t slept and the comedown was starting to kick in big-style. Much to our relief, our new contact was there to meet us the minute we got inside the terminal building and on our side of Immigration Control (Chinese/North Korean relations have always been pretty good!).  Avoiding breath-contact as much as we could (we didn’t want to knock the poor lad out), we tried to focus on his instructions for the onward leg of the journey before finding a corner of the airport where we could curl up and die for a couple of hours prior to boarding our next flight.

Back in 2000, Koryo Air had a reputation for being one of the worst airlines in the world and I wouldn’t argue with that opinion based on my experience at the time, although, according to this account, Koryo Air are nowadays much improved.

I need to add at this point that, for the entire duration of the two-hour flight to Pyongyang I despised my travel companion, Paul, with a passion because from the minute we sat down in our seats until the time we hit the tarmac in Pyongyang, he slept. He slept like the dead and he missed the whole Koryo Air experience which, back then (I’m not sure if these features are still the case), included an aircraft that was positively archaic, a distinct lack of emergency procedure prior to takeoff, dripping water from who knows where that resulted in damp seats, and an airline crew that actually stood in the brace position in the aisle during landing. To add to my misery, I had to endure the entire flight sitting next to an ex-Qantas pilot who proceeded to tell me everything I didn’t want to know about Koryo Air.

I have to admit that things became a lot more relaxed once we’d entered the DPRK and the ten-day trip ended up being a truly fascinating experience. We were met airside at the airport in Pyongyang by Mr Bak and Mr Lee (still in dark suits but minus the sunglasses) and from then on, they more or less remained by our sides for the entire time we were in North Korea.

Our itinerary was three-centred. We began with a few days in Pyongyang before driving north to Hyangsan and Mount Myohyangsan, the country’s premier tourist attraction. We then headed south to Kaesong, an interesting city that was also the staging post for our visit to the infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) (*) that has divided Korea since 1953.

(*) Unless I meet a smart-arsed traveller, I don’t really do bragging and one-upmanship but, along with Kirsty, I’ve also been to the Demilitarized Zone on the South Korean side of the border, which I consider a pretty impressive boast!

Looking down on Pyongyang from the top floor of the Yanggakdo International Hotel

Pyongyang: Kim Il-sung Square (left) and a distant view of the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel (right), which is currently the highest vacant building in the world    

We would find ourselves in odd situations often throughout the entire trip. We were told that we could take photographs, ask what we liked and go where we wanted within the confines of the locations we visited but we found out very early on that there was always the one stipulation that we had to adhere to – either Mr Bak or Mr Lee (preferably both) had to be present. For example, in Pyongyang, we stayed at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, a beast of a property with around 1,000 rooms. The hotel is situated on an island and not long after we arrived, Paul and I decided, rather naively in retrospect, to head out for a walk but within minutes of us being outside the main entrance of the hotel, our chaperons appeared and we continued our stroll in their company (*).

(*) We didn’t end up going out for long. The hotel is situated, no doubt strategically, in the middle of nowhere and so walking anywhere was rather pointless.

We saw all the usual sights during our time in North Korea – for example, the captured U.S. Navy spy ship, USS Pueblo, some of the ornate stations on Pyongyang’s metro system, the temples near Mount Myohyang, plus we also sat through several ‘performances’ at schools, youth palaces and the like that were put on for the benefit of us and the handful of other tourists that were in the country at the same time.

Performances put on for our benefit in Pyongyang

Heading out for an evening dance was, and probably still is, a popular pastime in Pyongyang (left). Reading newspapers like this is also common in other communist Asian countries such as China and Mongolia 

Pyongyang North Korea 8I haven’t mentioned this in the “WTF” moments listed below but traffic ladies (officially traffic security officers) are a common sight in Pyongyang. Dating back to the 1980s when there was very little motorised transport on the roads, there are lots of interesting facts about them but, in brief, they have to be pretty, unmarried, tall and must retire at the age of 26. Their routine is a choreographed masterpiece and it’s captivating to watch them in action. There are reportedly around 300 of them in the capital but elsewhere in North Korea the job is done by men, who don’t have a compulsory retirement age! Watch this short video if you want to see the traffic ladies doing their thing.

Life on the streets of Kaesong 

In a park or memorial place somewhere in Kaesong 

We also saw some gargantuan Soviet-inspired architecture and monuments, especially in the capital. I visited North Korea when it was under the rule of Kim Jong-il (the second Supreme Leader known as the “Dear Leader”, who took over from his father, Kim Il-sung, the first Supreme Leader known as the “Great Leader”) and, not surprisingly, a large percentage of the monuments and memorials we went to see were dedicated to either one or other of these two ‘Leaders’. I saw some incredible structures, which I know I didn’t really appreciate at the time and given how my interest in this particular style of architecture has developed since then, I would very much like to return to North Korea and see them all over again (*).

(*) It won’t take much to persuade Kirsty. She’s had the DPRK high on her agenda for many years now.

The Socialist Revolution Monument Pyongyang North KoreaCloseup of the Socialist Revolution Monument in Pyongyang. Unbelievably, this is the only photo of a socialist monument that I can find. I know for a fact that I would go absolutely crazy on the photographing Social monuments-front if I got the opportunity to return!

As well as being fascinated by what we saw, we had some serious “WTF” moments also in North Korea. We were politely told off by our escorts when they spotted us sitting on a wall near a massive statue of Kim Il-sung and, moments later, we got a serious fit of the giggles, which we had to suppress as if our life depended on it when we were given a bouquet of flowers each and told to lay them at the foot of another statue of either Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il; I can’t remember which. Paul and I also didn’t dare look at each other for fear of more laughter when we stopped near the Arch of Triumph, one of the capital’s most recognisable landmarks. When our minivan stopped for us to get out, Mr Bak legged it to my door and Mr Lee promptly went to Paul’s and with complete seriousness told us to be careful when stepping from the vehicle as this was Pyongyang’s busiest thoroughfare. See the photos below!

Arch of Triumph Pyongyang North KoreaArch of Triumph in Pyongyang

No caption required!

Other strange happenings included ending up in a bar in another hotel in Pyongyang with a bunch of Chinese prostitutes singing karaoke (no, that’s not a euphemism and no, I’m not going to expand further for fear of incriminating those who were there!) and, when we visited the DMZ near Kaesong, we were told by Mr Bak and Mr Lee, plus an army of guys in uniform, that we should wave and smile enthusiastically at the tourists and military personnel, which still included Americans at the time, on the southern side of the zone (*).

(*) This was in complete contrast to when Kirsty and I visited the DMZ from the South Korean side, where we were given explicit instruction not to put our hands in the air or make any sudden gestures with them for fear of causing World War III.

Incidentally, the South Koreans were blaring out audio propaganda across the DMZ in the form of pop music at full blast. I think, from memory, it was Wham!. It wasn’t until 2004 that both sides agreed to stop the broadcasts.

Entrance to the DMZ from the North Korean side 

Korean Demilitarized Zone North Korea 3Mr Bak (in dark suite and shades of course!), Paul and a guy from the DPRK military inside the DMZ

The famous conference room in the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only part of the DMZ that has both North and South personnel within it

Korean Demilitarized Zone North Korea 1The interior of the JSA conference room (North Korean end)

On one of the visits to a youth palace in Pyongyang, we stopped to watch a bunch of teenagers playing a game of football. Another group of tourists were there at the same time as us and we joined forces and offered to play them in a match. After a little deliberation between Mr Bak, Mr Lee and some official-looking people from the youth palace, it was decided this would be a good idea and so kick-off commenced. Now, I’m not a great footballer but on that day, for some reason, I was on fire. A beautiful header accompanied by a long-range free-kick and a tidy tap into the bottom-left corner of the net completed my hat-trick in under fifteen minutes of play and at half time, Mr Lee, who was playing on our side to even up the numbers, proposed to our team that it would be ‘better’ if we ended up losing the game. We were a little miffed by this suggestion but, considering where we were and also not wanting to create a diplomatic incident, we dutifully did just that. In other words, we threw the game and the score ended up being 5-4 in the Koreans’ favour. It made me feel all Grobbelaar and still irks me to this day! (*)

(*) Bruce Grobbelaar was a Liverpool goalkeeper who was accused of match-fixing allegations in the mid-1990s. He was acquitted but subsequently won, and then lost, his claim for libel against the UK newspaper that made the original accusation.

Pyongyang North Korea 9Playing football in Pyongyang.  I’m the one in the middle, looking a bit like Georgie Best (well, I certainly played like him)!

The strangest ‘moment’, however, happened in the scenic countryside near Mount Myohyang. We had stopped for a BBQ lunch and were all sitting around eating, drinking and talking when, suddenly, Mr Bak stood up, cleared his throat and belted out a reasonably lengthy song about the glorious virtues of the “Great Leader”, which was translated for our benefit, courtesy of Mr Lee. Generally, I squirm when someone starts singing in close proximity to me and the audience is limited to just a few people (unless its karaoke, I’m drunk and I’m with a load of Chinese ladies of the night!) but, on this occasion, my uncomfortableness increased tenfold when Mr Bak finished his ditty and asked either Paul or I if we had a patriotic song we would like to perform. Paul mumbled something inaudible (probably something along the lines of, “You’re senior to me, you can sort this one out!”) and shook his head which left me with no option but to stand up and do my bit for Anglo-North Korean relations. I didn’t (and still don’t) know the words to “God Save the Queen” but I’ve been a supporter of Southampton Football Club all my life and the only thing I could think to do was a rendition of  “When The Saints Go Marching In”, the song I sung on the terraces when I used to go and see Southampton, aka The Saints, play many moons ago. It was the second time I despised Paul on that trip – he’s an Arsenal supporter and they don’t really have an anthem so he got away with not getting up after me.

Mount Myohyang Hyangsan North KoreaMoments before the singing nastiness near Mount Myohyang!

Eventually, we said our goodbyes to Mr Bak and Mr Lee and boarded our flight back to Beijing and then onto London. I made sure Paul stayed awake during the entire Koryo Air flight and we both kept well away from the booze on the flight back to London.

Both of us had one final incident to deal with when we got back to our respective homes in the UK. We had each been given a large bottle of ginseng, which we stupidly packed in our checked luggage. The stuff stinks and both bottles leaked profusely during the transit home and had to be dealt with – I think I ended up throwing my suitcase away!

I did include an itinerary featuring North Korea in the Bales programme as a group tour and for a few years, it sold pretty well. But then something political happened in that part of the world. I can’t remember exactly what but we had to stop selling the itinerary based on FCO advice and that was the end of that. I lost contact with Mr Bak and Mr Lee although I did spot Mr Lee on a BBC documentary series called Holidays in the Axis of Evil. He was the guide for the presenter, Ben Anderson, and features quite prominently throughout the show. The programme doesn’t seem to be currently readily available. but if you do get hold of it, you can see Mr Lee by jumping to 0:24, 1:27 and 1:37.

If you enjoyed reading Mark’s tale of travelling way back when, you might like some of the other posts in our ‘Back in the Day‘ series.


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